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June 1, 2013

Samuel Morse's telegraph plans perfected in Cherry Valley

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The Daily Star

---- — In late May of 1988, Cherry Valley received some welcomed news that the village had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A most fitting designation, considering its history dates back to 1740 and all that happened here during the Revolutionary War, for starters.

Communications technology of 1988 could have provided the news in its latest advance, the fax machine, but the village instead got a letter from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Cherry Valley was no stranger in its supporting role of speeding up forms of communications technology. Some of that history dates back to the 1830s, when Samuel F.B. Morse came here on a visit to work on perfecting his invention, the telegraph, at what is today’s Morse House on Montgomery Street.

The Morse family dates back to after the Revolutionary War when James and Mary Morse came to Cherry Valley to settle around 1814. They purchased what was called the Ripley cottage and built additions to it over the years. Their sons, Oliver and Francis, were subsequent owners.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, while born in Charlestown, Mass., was a cousin to Oliver and Francis, and was a frequent visitor to the relatives in Cherry Valley.

Young Samuel wasn’t really an inventor from the beginning, as he graduated from Yale College in 1810, having received instruction in religious philosophy, mathematics and science of horses. He supported himself by painting.

Morse’s work attracted the eye of noted artist Washington Allston, which led to the three-year stay of studying painting in Europe. This led to plenty of commissioned work, such as portraits of Presidents John Adams and James Madison, among other well-known people of the time.

On visits to Cherry Valley, Morse did some painting, including portraits of the Cooper family in Cooperstown. While in Europe, Morse had become friends with James Fenimore Cooper.

Morse had been commissioned in 1825 to paint a portrait of Gilbert duMotier, marquis de Lafayette, in Washington. While Morse was painting, a messenger on horseback delivered a letter from Morse’s father that read one line, “Your dear wife is convalescent.”

Morse rushed to his home in New Haven, Conn., leaving that portrait unfinished. By the time he arrived, his wife had passed away. Morse was heartbroken that he had been unaware of his wife’s failing health and her lonely death, and as a result left painting to pursue a means of more rapid long-distance communication.

In the 1830s, Morse was visiting the relatives in Cherry Valley, as he worked in an upstairs bedroom over the kitchen on his invention, the telegraph. Morse completed rough drafts on the necessary apparatus upon which the telegraph was modeled. Morse teamed up with Amos Swan and together they perfected Morse Code.

Morse gave his first public presentation in 1838, but it wasn’t until 1843 that Congress funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. In 1844, the first news dispatched by electric telegraph was that the Whig party had nominated Henry Clay for president.

Inventions at Cherry Valley’s Morse House weren’t limited to Cousin Samuel. Many years later Harold Morse had an inventive strength, although it wasn’t as famous as the telegraph. Harold developed a water motor, a forerunner to a turbine that was hooked up to a dynamo and developed sufficient electricity for a light bulb in the kitchen. It was invented in the same room over the kitchen where Samuel had worked on his telegraph plans.

A special thanks goes to Susan Murray-Miller, Cherry Valley Historian for assistance on this article.

On Monday: Area students take aim with marbles in a 1948 tournament in Oneonta.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.